Secondary Education and the Creation of Permanent Impoverished Class

The post below was originally posted in three installments on DailyKos in Nov. 2006. To see the original posts, see here.  Please keep in mind that these are polemical essays written in a specific voice for a specific audience.

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Education – the great cause of social inequality in the US today . . . .

I think education in this country is a crock. To quote a popular book of late, it is yet one more of the ‘greatest stories ever sold.’ I think that the role of education in this country right now has by and large one major function – to make sure that a whole lot of people fail and drop out before getting one of the ‘brass rings,’ called ‘diplomas’, that can grant financial and social mobility and opportunity. Education serves mostly, as far as I can tell, to maintain rather than lessen class and racial divides.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a professional educator, having taught college level English, HS math and science, standardized test-taking skills, and I even gave piano and guitar lessons to 5yr olds. I love learning, and I’m a professional student.

But what I’m going to argue is that our country needs enough people to fail HS so that we will haven enough unskilled workers to work at McDonalds and the like. And nothing like trigonmetric equations, Jane Austen, or covalent bonds to help make this a reality. More below.

Ok, this is going to seem like a raging attack on math and science education, at least until near the end. But don’t worry, I’ll criticize the liberal arts soon enough. But a bit about me first – I’m a college English prof, and a brand new one at that (woohoo!). And I’ve taught a hell of a lot of intro college level writing/composition classes. I also briefly taught HS english and music, and I taught GRE and SAT standardized test classes for The Princeton Review on the side. But the experience that really speaks to what I’m writing about here is the nearly 15 years I spent working weekends to make money part-time as I went to school. I worked for a private tutoring company, teaching NYS Regents review exam courses in HS Chemistry, Biology, Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, in addition to working one on one with literally thousands of students over the years.

THE QUESTION:
So, every year I tutored math and science, my students asked me the same thing – when will I ever use this stuff again later in life? And my answer was always something like this: probably never, except if they make you study it in college, or you plan on being a doctor, chemist, biologist, etc. When I asked them if they planned to go into any of those professions, they generally said no.

Then I’d get the next question, and a much harder one to answer: THEN WHY DO I NEED TO LEARN THIS STUFF? WHAT’S THE POINT?

To some of my students, I’d give the easy answer: ‘Because they say you need to know this stuff to get a HS diploma. Just consider it a set of random exercises, and if you complete them, they’ll give you cool stuff at the end. And your parents will be off your back, and we’ll all be much happier’.

But that’s a bit disingenous. But if I told some of them what I really thought, I’d feel we’d be off on a tangent, one that I very much wanted to talk about, while they were very likely just expressing frustration, and figured a rhetorical question the best way to vent their annoyance at, say, graphing cosine curves.

But sometimes I’d get a student who was asking with a bit more umph, or with whom I had a sense that they were actually asking the question with a desire to know what the hell this was all for. Then I might say something like this: “You will likely never need to know this stuff ever again. Now, if you listen to what math educators say about why you should learn this stuff, it actually doesn’t have to do with the particular math skills per se. Rather, solving problems with multiple possible answering and several ways in which they can be solved teaches advanced problem solving skills that you might need later in life. So, let’s say your boss at work in the future asks you to solve a complex problem. The logic is that studying math will help you develop your ‘complex task problem-solving’ muscle, and thus, you can apply this to any area you pursue later in life. That said, they couldn’t used ANY topic to teach you this, so long as it requires you to juggle multiple ways to solve problems, in fields ranging from computer science to logic or whatever. The argument, however, is that math is the most ‘contentless’, the most ‘universal’, and hence, develops problem solving skills that can be applied to any field you go into, because its not so much conderned with content, as it is with the form of problem solving. Science teaches similar skills, just in a more hands on kind of way”

Of course, I don’t buy that bullshit, but it IS what a lot of education professionals will give as a rationale for our current system. But every so often, I got a student who then posed the next logical question: “But then, why don’t they just teach us real life situations with complex tasks that will be similar to the tasks we’ll face in the workforce?”

If I got that far, then I’d size up my student, and whether or not it made sense to go into a lefty tirade for a little bit – remember, these are HS students. But some I knew would be receptive to this, and I saw it as educational in its own way, so, I didn’t feel that badly about it. If that was the case, I’d answer with something like this: “Well, I think your really right to ask that question. Not all countries run their educational systems like ours. In fact, in much of Europe, you choose whether or not you want to go to a ‘professional ‘ HS which is specialized in a specific area, say, computers or finance or marketing or auto repair or construction, while if you plan to go to college afterwards, you apply to an ‘academic’ HS, which teaches what our HS’s here in America teach, a broad, liberal arts education. But it is taught at a much higher level, because everybody there wants this sort of thing, and afterwards, people go into college and study only their major, having most of the wide liberal arts degree behind them in HS. `Often college is 5 or 6 years, but instead of a BA, you get done with an MA. So, the US system is only one of many. But if you want my opinion, I think the reason why they make you learn all the stuff they do is because it perpetuates current social power’.
 
SOME HISTORY:
Here’s where I either stop once the eyes glaze over, or possibly continue if I see interest, or if they ask ‘why’: “So, in answer to the question why, here’s what I think. A very, VERY small percentage of the population is going to need math beyond fractions and percents later in life, if not some very, VERY basic algebra skills. I can even see the logic in teaching sin/cos/tan functions of the most basic sort, but even then, only to carpenters and designers, so, maybe not even that. The point is, the large majority of the population that ISN’T going to be doctors or scientists will never need this stuff, ever again. But nearly everybody has to take it. Now, a lot of this has to do with the space race and the early 1960’s, when Sputnik went into orbit, Krushchev said ‘we will bury you!’, and everyone was worried that we didn’t have enough math and science people to not get crushed by the technology of the Russians (which was a crock of shit to those in the gov’t who knew the extent of Russian technology in the 1950’s, but that’s a whole different story). Point is, the original reason why math and science teaching was pursued so stridently was because it was designed to prepare large amounts of the country to be funnelled into the military-industrial complex. It also defined a set of ‘hard, masculine’ subjects of study, in distinction to the ‘softer’ disciplines of the humanities (which were much more socially dangerous, full of strange ideas). It also had the benefit of turning education, a very slippery process, into something quantifiable. And policy wonks always like this. it is infinitely easier to measure the quality of education by advancement in math or science. That said, I’ve got my major doubts that this does the majority of those who are forced to learn these often very difficult subjects any good later in life”

“What it does serve to do, however, is perpetuate privilege. By setting the bar for a HS diploma higher by involving subjects divorced from any relation to a particular person’s future, an arbitrary set of hurdles are created. And this isn’t JUST in terms of math and science. Literature  is also in the same boat. Studnets come out of HS not knowing how to write properly, and their reading skills are often not that great, but while you would think they’d work on helping students read things they’ll actually see later in life, like newspapers or reports or things like that, no, they teach Shakespeare and Jane Austen, who are completely divorced from contemporary life in America today. I don’t know anyone who got through HS English without being forced to read at least one play by Shakespeare, like it or not. But this too is a product of history. To the early proponents of teaching the ‘English classics’ to the masses, the issue was one of MORALITY, not reading skills. Shakespeare was seen as a way to have students learn multiple points of view as a way of moderating their moral sentiments, refining them, learning to form consensus and have respect for tradition, and to defer hasty judgement. For Matthew Arnold, one of the leading proponents of this idea in the 1870’s, English literature should be taught to the working classes to teach refined morals of the upper classes, to teach the classics that were part of the social capital needed for social class mobility (even if that was somewhat a fiction), and provide a stepping stone whereby the working classes would at least fancy themselves able, if they learned enough Shakespeare and Milton, to join the ‘cultured’. And Arnold makes this very clear, in fact, he argues that the reason why we need literature is to unifty the state, provide a glue for public morals now that religion is failing, and to stop the working class from going to these pesty new things they call ‘strikes’. Even the title of his book encapsulates the choice he saw facing the england of the 1870’s.  “Culture and Anarchy.” Its thus no accident that the study of English started in the Mechanics  Institutes, but there wasn’t a professor or English literature at Oxford or Cambridge Universities until the 1880’s, and full departments teaching in earnest until the 1930’s and the need for cultural nationalism to fight the Germans. Still, when the englishmen went to the colonies , or fought the Germanic Huns, it was their Shakespeare and Milton, held close to heart, which let them know that it was they who possesed what Kipling famously called ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (ok, their toiletries and grooming methods also served to mark these boundaries as well, hence the famous racialized campaigns for soap in the 1880’s and 90’s). Teaching literature was all about social power. And largely, it remains that way to this day, at least to the extent that it is REQUIRED of all students. Even today, in most collleges, the primary way students learn better fluency with writing is via majoring in English, which generally means reading a hell of a lot of LITERATURE. Now, for those who plan to pursue PhD’s in literature, that’s great. But for those who want to get a degree in English, why does that mean they need to know Shakespeare, or Wordsworth, or even fiction at all? Why not newspapers, journalism, film, or the types of writing they may encounter in their fields of specialization?

THE PRACTICAL STUFF:
Back to HS, however, what literature, science, and math education do in this country is not prepare people for later life in the workplace – if that were so, we’d be eding closer to the European system. No, they serve to make sure that ENOUGH PEOPLE FAIL HIGH SCHOOL, AND THE REST CAN’T GET THROUGH THE REMEDIAL MATH AND READING CLASSES AT OUR COMMUNITY COLLEGES. The rich and privileged, of course, can get tutors, and even if they have no interest, they can be pushed through these things, largely because they don’t have to work while going to school. But why take a class in remedial math, when you can’t pay the bills, and need to work more hours? It only makes sense to drop outt afte while, when education is so pointsless in regard to one’s future. What I feel is that this is in fact the very point. That is, the purpose of school is to be as disconnected from your future as possible. That is, at least until you choose a major in the second half of your BA. But by then, a large percent of the population has been weeded out, under the myth of the ‘liberal arts education’ and the ‘well rounded individual’.  

Now, if you want truly well rounded individuals, you look at skills that would make one well rounded in today’s world, not previous ones. Teach the US constitution, and contemporary world and US politics, gov’t, and cultures, and at least 20th century history, to produce better citizens. Teach writing and reading in various areas, not only fiction and literature, with a focus on journalism, comparing multiple newspapers to read between the lines, writing op-ed pieces and have writing classes tailored to what students ‘major’ in in HS – yup, in HS. Even classes in public speaking, presentations, group work, spreadsheets, power-point – the sorts of skills that almost everyone might use at some point in most non-physical careeers. But get rid of all math past first year, and requiring science and literature for all, or at best, reduce the requirement to one year each, and make anything else optional. Yes, of course this will require changing the standardization of teacher training in this country, and require HS’s to be more flexible in the subjects offered. And yes, it does make it difficult for someone to switch tracks down the line, but that’s why you need to provide courses designed for just that (ie: “math for those who want to be doctors but majored in something else in HS”). As anyone who works in college education will tell you, just about any college level remedial course covers about as much as three years of HS study combined.

But what about those who say we already have too many students languishing in remedial classes in community colleges in this country? Well, that’s because 1) many of these classes teach math that, for most colllege majors, students will never need again, or 2) because students didn’t spend enough time on reading and writing in earlier years, and instead spent their time on Shakesepare, or covalent bonds. But aside from a basic survey to let students out there know these subject exist, neither Shakespeare of covalent bonds should EVER be required for a HS diploma.

THE BOTTOMLINE:
But with the system set up the way it is now, we’ve got a system of arbitrary hurdles, designed BECAUSE they have no relevance, to make a large enough percent of the population fail, so that it perpetuates an unskilled labor force in this country. In doing so, the purpose of education in this country isn’t to provide opportunity and social mobility, but rather, to make it as difficult as possible. Otherwise, who will work at McDonalds? So-called ‘illegal’/immigrant labor? But since the poor in this country have traditionally been from racialized groups, this policy has the added effect of not only keeping large segments of the poor in this country from having mobility, but also, it keeping the racial divide in this country from changing, in that it is primarilly people of color who can’t afford $40/hour private tutors to help them pass – a norm in many affluent US suburbs.

And this is why I think education in this country is about perpetuating inequality, and why when I hear republicans only pushing math and science education, I think to myself – that’s cold-war hold-over mentality, or closet racism. Not that most educators want this, but I think that all we’ve all been raised in an educational ideology designed by those who are at the top of the system – not those at the bottom, and its only natural for those at the top to want society to mirror them, and thereby perpetuate the status quo. But I think if we want a more egalitarian society, getting quadratic equations OUT of our HS requirements is a great place to start.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

That said, I still feel that much larger changes are required – this diary has been about curriculum, not education per se. As most educators will tell you, they often aren’t allowed to truly teach the way they would want to. What we do isn’t educate, as much as indoctrinate what is ‘supposed to be taught’. Only when students get to have a hand in shaping their own curriculums, planning the tasks for the class to accomplish for the semester (can you picture a class on government where the STUDENTS get to set the agenda, and the teacher is nothing but a resource and coordinator? Talk about teaching research skills, complex problem solving, etc.!!), will our education become truly a participatory process in which people create their own growth, become invested in the means more than the ends, feel empowered rather than discouraged by what they learn, and truly produce a radically democratic pedagogy. Of course, this would throw standardized testing out the window. But this is all material best saved for another diary.

For now, let me leave this diary with a famous quote by Oscar Wilde: “”Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” The first step towards an educational system that truly desires to either educate, create social and class opportunity and mobility, or both, is perhaps to debunk the myth that what we do now in our schools is education, or the production of ‘well rounded individuals’. Education is always dependent upon those in power deciding what sort of stuff is worth knowing. For those of us who believe it is the path rather than the goal which is important, making sure the path isn’t full of completely arbitrary hurdles which serve no purpose but to weed people out is essential to creating a more democratic system of ‘education’. Or at least, that’s my opinion.

 

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More on ‘Education – the great cause of inequality in the world today . . .’

So, yesterday I wrote this diary, and while I started at a sane hour of the night, I got done by like 4am, and so, not that many people read it. But those that read it, by and large, HATED IT! And I find that really, really interesting. Hence, a new diary.

Basically, I argued that the teaching of science, math, and literature, at least in the way we currently teach them, is all about making sure that enough people fail HS and their first two years of college, so that there’s a permanent underclass in this country to continue to work underpaid jobs, thereby perpetuating the class and to some extent the racial divide in this country.

For more on basic sum of the diary, the disagreement that ensued, and my reasons for posting some seemingly controversial stuff, follow below the fold . . .

So, yeah, the diary was a harsh screed, mostly against math and science education in this country, but also against literary study. So, for those who didn’t read the diary, I’ve spent years teaching all three subjects, the first two on a HS level, the second at HS and college levels. I love learning, I believe firmly in the need for interdisciplinary work, and I’m a committed student and teacher.

But I was amazed at just how much my views hit resistance. I think a lot of this can be explained by the fact that I was really putting forth a marxist point of view (or rather, my own take on marxist critiques of education in this country). And these ideas have been floating around in my brain more an more or late, but particularly in the last few years as I finished teaching HS math (algebra, geometry, trig) and science (bio, chem, physics), and devoted myself more to teaching college english. That said, I’ve taught a lot of other things as well – including lots of piano lessons to 5 yr olds. So, let me just state that out the outset – I’m lifelong curious learner, and I’m someone who is a dedicated teacher. But I STILL think that learning is one of the last things that happens in our schools.

Why? Well, let’s go back to the marxism stuff. I think that what we SAY we are doing in our educational system, and what we are ACTUALLY doing, are two VERY different things. I think what we SAY we are doing is producing ‘well rounded individuals’, and providing a ‘firm foundation in the liberal arts’. But what I think is really happening is that we are making sure that 1) students don’t get properly prepared in skills they might actually need after school, because 2) they spend too much time focusing on things they will never need, cannot see the eventual need for, and are relatively disconnected from their daily lifeworlds, and thus 3) creating a set of largely arbitrary hoops that people have to jump through to get diplomas, which are little more than certificates giving them access to social mobility. The way we touch these isolated subjects right now is so influenced by the 19th century division of subjects according to ‘rational’ critieria – namely, 19th century notions of science. But if we take capitalist exploitation into account, we need to think about the ways in which the production of ‘subjects of knowledge’ serves to maintain social inequality today by keeping just enough people, without the benefit of tutors, private lessons, and the need not to work to support themsevles after age 16, outside the grasp of social capital.

THE ARGUMENT VIA EXAMPLES:
Let me sum this up with three examples: Jane Austen, quadratic equations, and covalent bonds. Oh, and the notion of HS ‘majors’ (which some schools are already shifting to).  

Now, I’m happy that I know about all three of these things. I love to learn for the sake of it, I’m addicted to it. But I think when you try to force this approach to learning on people, you can really turn some people off, and this can have some very, very detrimental consequences. Here’s why:

JANE AUSTEN
– I specialize in English lit. But if I didn’t, I would never have needed to know about her past HS. Why should students read this today in English class? Why is it that English class, which is where most students practice basic skills like reading and writing, concentrate on the ‘great’ works of literature to teach these skills? Wouldn’t it make more sense to either 1) teach basic reading and writing in things that students will need in their future, like newspapers, magazine, and website articles, which are the dominant form of consumption of information in today’s world? If you look at the history of the teaching of literature, it was tied to the production of certain ‘moral values’ (see my previous diary). But I remember reading the ‘classics’ of American literature in HS – I swear I must’ve read ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ nearly 5 times in various grades, and I never felt it got much better. Most importantly, however, I feel that fiction is a very poor way to teach students how to practice the sorts of comprehension skills that ‘everyone’ should know, nor how to write the sort of writing they most likely might need, in any profession (ie: business letters, letters to the editor, business proposals, academic essays, etc.). I think we need to REALLY question why it is we link the study of reading and writing with the study of literature. The only thing I can think of is history, as well as some sense of the desire to promote certain types of cultural morality (see diary). But if this is so, let’s either give classes in ethics, or, make literature an elective. That way, Jane Austen won’t serve as a gatekeeper to a college diploma. At least teach a contemporary author, like Richard Wright. If it were up to me, Shakespeare might be a HS elective, but it makes NO sense to me that people need to read Elizabethan english to graduate HS. And I LOVE Shakespeare, and Spenser even more. But in a country whose HS graduates often can’t write proper sentences, or comprehend a NY Times article, WHY the HELL do we teach Shakespeare? This should be an elective. Literature and the teaching of reading/writing in this country need to be separated.
    My solution – use newspapers, magazine articles, and internet sources to teach reading and writing. Work up to comparing multiple newspaper articles on various subjects, to be able to read for bias. Work on writing  similar articles about your own world. Start with journalism, and then work towards what most college have moved to, a HS level version of ‘writing across the disciplines’ – that is, have electives that tailor to broad areas students might want to pursue, and they practice writing while learning skills towards a HS level ‘major’. So, ‘writing for business careers’, ‘writing in humanities (this is where they’d read their precious shakespeare, and in historical context!), ‘writing for science careers’, ‘writing for social science careers,’ etc.

QUADRATIC EQUATIONS – I’ve taught thousands of kids how to do these. But I fail to see any reason why they should know them. Nor do they. And this is what I see as the big problem with math education today. Math is completely divorced from context, and taught as an abstract set of puzzles. And since most HS math can be summed up in to one solid intro college course, why do we make ALL students learn these quadratic equations to graduate HS? I think to weed people out. But if we don’t even teach students what they are used for, why teach them? This is why I think that the ONLY math students should learn should be in CONTEXT. But that means radically rethinking our math curriculums, which are now based on covering abstract subject areas like ‘algebra’ or ‘trigonometry’. Rather, once students get to HS, there should be ‘math across the disciplines,’ so that you have, ‘math in architecture, building, and construction’, ‘math for computers’, ‘mathematical statistics in politics and gov’t’, ‘math for  health sciences’, etc. You’ll hit a LOT of the same math this way, but only as needed to solve SPECIFIC problems. Never again will students ask why they need this stuff, because they will have chosen one of the 4-5 tracks of math offered by their school, all of which can come in levels.

COVALENT BONDS – Why do we teach bio, chem, and physics to people who will likely never specialize in this stuff? Don’t get me wrong, I feel its so important that we learn some basics of the world around us – but nobody, NOBODY who doesn’t later specialize in this stuff should be required to learn about covalent bonds, let alone fail out of HS because of them. That’s why I think that after a basic one-year general science class, you make science only a requirement for those who pursue HS majors which specialize in science or health professions. And even then, you tailor the science classes so they line up with the math you chose. So, if you choose, ‘math for architecture, building, and contruction’, you could take ‘science for architecture, building, and construction’, and that way, they get some chemistry, some ecology, some physics, but only to solve SPECIFIC PROBLEMS.

MAJORS – so, can we do this, without having schools go crazy? If we divide up HS into VERY basic majors, we can do this. Let’s say we do the following: health and life sciences, business and computers, mechanical sciences (engineering, building, construction, architecture), humanities (literature, history), social sciences (psychology, economics, sociology, statistics), law/politics/govt. That’s FIVE basic departments, encompassing five major areas that most careers can be seen as vaguely falling into. Using these as lenses, rather than abstract entities like ‘history, literature, math’, you create clusters of knowledge that cross disciplines, and can be directed to the GENERAL career path students are interested in. So, you only learn quadratic equations if you plan to go into mechanical sciences (maybe you want to be a landscape architect), or, you only learn shakespeare if you see yourself going into the humanities. This isn’t to say get rid of literature all together, because you can integrate it into other majors – EACH major should likely have all the major previous ‘subject areas’ in it. So, if you study business and computers, your ‘reading and writing for business and computers’ could include literature on robber barrons or globalization to talk about corporate ethics, and in the humanities classes, your classes might go into the chemistry of paint, paper, bronze, arts preservation, printing, etc.

THE GOAL, however, is to make sure that math, science, literature, and non-20th century history are not used as abstract hurdles to weed out enough people so that the capitalist class has a class of unskilled laborers to exploit.
Rather, we need to focus on READING and WRITING as the basic skills whereby people learn about the world (yes, including learning more math and science!), and stop thinking about math and science fields separate from what they’re used for.

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Against the myth of the ‘liberal arts education’

So, I’ve been writing a bit about education lately, mostly because I posted one diary, and nobody liked it, and so I expanded upon it, and got a similar response, all of which has me reallllly curious. Now, I’ve always thought DailyKos a pretty lefty kinda place. But maybe not euro-style lefty?  But I’ve been lately espousing the view on this site that various aspects of the educational system in this country perpetuate inequality – not because they are underfunded, but because of WHAT they teach, not only HOW. And this has led me to a realization – is the myth of the liberal arts education/well-rounded individual still alive?

I think this myth hurts kids and creates a relatively static class of the disempowered in our society. If this interests you, please read and comment below, cause I’m curious why my ideas are getting such resistance on a site like DKos . . .

I’ll be upfront – I’m a nyc english prof with a background in philosophy, cultural studies, critical theory, that sorta thing. But aside from theory classes, I’ve taught a bunch of intro reading/composition courses, I’ve been an adjunct, was a private tutor for over 15 yrs teaching individuals and classes HS math and science, taught SAT/GRE prep classes for princeton review, was briefly a HS English and Music teacher, and taught lots of 5 yr olds to play piano. I love education, I’m a lifelong student and I’m devoted to teaching my courses to encourage a creative, engaged, activist relation to the world.

But I’ve been lately espousing the view on this site that various aspects of the educational system in this country perpetuate inequality – not because they are underfunded, but because of WHAT they teach, not only HOW.

So, this is a continuation of my two previous diaries, but I’m trying not to repeat but rather respond to feedback and rework so these ideas can evolve. So, this time, I’m going to take the ‘liberal arts education myth’ as my line of attack. And I’m gonna state this in proposition form, for easy access, and to streamline for comments.

  1. MOST OF WHAT WE TEACH STUDENTS IN SCHOOL, BEYOND READING, WRITING, AND BASIC MATH THEY DON’T USE IN THEIR FUTURE JOBS. Statistically this can’t but be true. Doctors will never use Shakespeare at work, nor will literature professors use physics. So, we must be doing something in school beyond producing people for the job market.
  1. A HS and COLLEGE DIPLOMA ARE NECESSARY TO GET ACCESS TO SOCIAL MOBILITY IN THIS COUNTRY. Without these basics, you can’t get most high paying jobs, have little access to economic security, and generally lack acces to social and economic capital. And numerous studies have shown that the greatest indicator which correlates to academic success of one’s children is your income (for a variety of reasons).
  1. WHAT KEEPS MOST PEOPLE FROM MOVING UP THE TYPE OF JOB THEY GET ISN’T THE SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE FOR THE JOB IN QUESTION, BUT RATHER, A DIPLOMA.
  1. OUR SOCIETY DESIRES TO MAKE ‘WELL ROUNDED INDIVIDUALS’ BY MEANS OF A ‘LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION.’ I can’t think of any reason why everyone who goes through HS needs to know how to graph a cosine curve in math class. If the reason were to form advanced thought processes needed for later careers, we would follow the european system, and teach advanced thinking skills in the general areas (health sciences, business, humanities, social sciences, mechanical sciences, law and gov’t) of people’s eventual areas of specialization by 2nd year of HS, and not teach conic sections to future psychologists who might find statistics more useful.
  1. THE BROAD FOUNDATION IN THE LIBERAL ARTS AIMS TO PROVIDE CHOICE FOR PEOPLE TO CHOOSE PROFESSIONS LATER. But a LOT of people don’t even get to this point, they need to work two or three jobs while young, and school is a real long term investment, and doesn’t pay financial dividends any time soon. So, for so many, unless they are learning skills that will directly lead to employment, school looks really detached from living in today’s society, particularly because in our Wal-Mart/HMO culture, there’s no safety net. So, lots of people don’t finish HS, and many don’t get a four year degree (which usually at least comes with a major that has some relation to the job market).
  1. A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION IS SUPPOSED TO ALSO PRODUCE GENERALLY AWARE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY. But if that were really our goal, why do we teach HS and college general education requirements the way we do? Why do we teach reading and writing via fiction, when most of the writing needed EITHER for future employment or being an aware member of society in today’s world are not fiction? Why all the Shakespeare? Does this really make better political citizens (no, that would be studying newspapers and magazines to learn to read multiple versions of the same story and read between the lines), informed citizens (no, that would be non-fiction works on, say, economics or social issues, or history as it directly impacts today’s major social issues), or is this rather about creating some sort of ‘moral’ values that can be granted by ‘classic literature’ (according to the history of English instruction, this is the original reason English lit was taught in school, as substitute religion in the late 19th century). And if general math and science literacy were aimed at for those who want to pursue careers in social science or humanities, why don’t we teach these subjects as they relate to key issues of the day (ie: math in elections, science and the changing ecology, the science of global warming, sustainibility, the math of national economics) rather than abstract divisions of alegebra, trignometry, chemistry, physics (these divisions come from the 19th century as well!).
  1. IF A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION, AS IT IS CURRENTLY STRUCTURED IN THIS COUNTRY, AIMS TO PREPARE STUDENT FOR THE WORK WORLD, OR PRODUCE GENERALLY AWARE CITIZENS, IT WOULD BE STRUCTURED DIFFERENTLY. What I’m arguing is that the way things are currently divided, neither of these goals are acheived effectively. Students learn deconstextualized topics like quadratic equations and jane austen, because our subjects are organized not around their impact on either of these concerns, but rather around a 19th century typology of the ‘divisions of knowledge’, wherey math only relates to math, literature only to literature. In doing so, they often spend time on lots of topics that neither relate to their eventual career fields, nor being well rounded in a way that is relevant to navigating today’s world, as opposed to that of the 19th century.
  1. IF CAREER PREP AND AWARE MEMBER OF TODAY’S WORLD AREN’T BEING DONE WELL, THEN WHAT ARE WE DOING? Certainly not teaching basic skills like reading, writing, or basic math. Our curriculums are too broad to do these things well. We teach jane austen to people who have trouble with the NY Times as a way to produce reading or writing skills. Why do we do this? And why do we focus on teaching quadratic equations to ALL students, when we could be teaching economics to future business people, in HS, and computer skills to budding lawyers? Why don’t our HS students have firmer foundation in BASIC skills, then skip this ‘liberal arts stuff’, then take general ed courses DESIGNED for their interdisciplinary relevance to today’s world (ie: reading and writing on current events, math and the economy, science and the environment, politics and the social environment), and then MOVE ON TO A HS MAJOR – so at least people come out with a specialization?
  1. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL. Most people who come out of HS having learned trig and Jane Austen will NEVER use them again – statistically speaking. Neither of them really enhance your ‘general awareness’ of how to be adapted to today’s world, unless you specialize in areas that need them (my mom got by fine wihut Jane Austen). And if you want to respecialize, say, you did your HS major in Humanities and you decided you want to be a doctor, one college level class can cover nearly all HS math in one course, and usually in a way specifically directed at their major (ie: statistic for pscyhologists). So, WHY do we teach these subjects equally to everyone? Is it just easier to crank out teachers that way? I think there’s something more . . .
  1. IF OUR CURRENT MODE OF SECONDARY EDUCATION ISN’T REALLY BASED ON CAREER PREP OR PRODUCING MORE GENERALLY PREPARED MEMBERS OF TODAY’S WORLD (either would be done much better, structurally, if that were really the case) – THEN WHY DO WE TEACH THINGS THIS WAY?? For me, that’s the million dollar ques.

11. MY ANSWER: THE REASON WHY WE TEACH THING THIS WAY IS SO THAT THERE’S RELATIVELY ARBITRARY, OFTEN POINTLESS SEEMING (certainly to students, and potentially to some skeptical adults as well) HURDLES, DESIGNED SO THAT ITS DIFFICULT ENOUGH FOR ENOUGH PEOPLE TO FAIL, BUT INEFFICIENT TO REALLY PROVIDE THE SKILLS FOR SOCIAL MOBILITY. Now, why would we do something like
that?

  1. TO PERPETUATE CLASS-INEQUALITY (and this often ties into issues of race inequity as well) BY PROVIDING A PERMANENT SERVICE CLASS THAT GETS TRAPPED IN DEAD END JOBS BUT STILL BUYS ENOUGH PRODUCTS TO FUND THE CONSUMER DRIVEN ECONOMY. So, you give people just enough to buy basic products, but not enough to get real security and true social mobility. People need to stay in the lowermiddleclass if the Cheney’s of the world are to get super-rich. Now, I don’t think they set school policy. But they do block the sort of legistlation that would promote real change in our schools. But I also think that we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Not by some evil conglomerate. But I think that the 19th century ideas, formed by a rising middle class of capitalist industrialists has remained with us, and with them, its values. I think its time we ask what our education REALLY does in this country, with 20th century, progressive values in mind. I think we need to shift closer to the European system, make sure people come out of HS with majors, radically revise our conception of providing students with ‘breadth’, and radically rethink WHY we teach Jane Austen and the structural properties of spring tension to everybody, as opposed to future specialists. Aren’t Richard Wright and ecology/sustainibility more important to MOST students? Are we sure we’re not just providing arbitrary hurdles that actively take people away from really geting enough practice on basic skills, or skills that might make them aware of political issues when they vote, or get what it means when the Fed talks, or skills that could at least get them jobs?

PS –If you’re a teacher and you post comments, keep in mind, I’m an english instructor,  yet I’m really decimating the rationale behind teaching literature as the primary template for reading/writing in ‘english’ classes. A lot of comments I’ve gotten emphasize things llike ‘science surrounds us’, or ‘math is everywhere’, or ‘how are we going to compete’. But I think a lot of these mantras, while true in their own way, just show that we too were raised in this system. My question is, despite our passions and loves developed in this system, does this system really serve our students as much as it serves us as teachers who of course want to teach the stuff we spent all that time learning? But is this what they need? How would we know?

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~ by chris on October 19, 2009.

3 Responses to “Secondary Education and the Creation of Permanent Impoverished Class”

  1. […] version of this, but there is a much more consequential version of this. For anyone who has read my postings on secondary education, I firmly believe that math education is used to do one thing in the country at this point – […]

  2. […] but there is a much more consequential version of this. For anyone who has read my postings on secondary education, I firmly believe that math education is used to do one thing in the country at this point – […]

  3. Pierre Bourdieu makes a very similar point about education.

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